Hearkening back to our original theme of need v. want, the subject of bike armor straddles both worlds indecisively.
If you care about that certain maniacal aggro or freeriding mountain biker on your list, you are going to want to get him or her something she or he may really need but might not really want. That is, elbow and knee pads, or maybe shin guards, are items even the best riders need. They just don’t want to squander a fairly spendy Christmas present on something so, well, practical. They’d rather have a new shock or fork or set of wheels, or maybe some bling like a matching Chris King bottom bracket and headset.
If pressed, though, even the most basely materialistic would own up to needing armor if they’re really serious about improving their riding skills. (This assumes they don’t already have the latest state-of-the-art stuff.) Even the best need some protection now and then.
Our favorite pads are Six Six One EVO elbow pads and Six Six One Kyle Strait soft shell (non-EVO) knee pads. For shin guards we like the Brian Lopes signature series from Troy Lee Designs.
For cranial care, which in this case means full-face, our current coconut wrap is a Giro Remedy. But helmets don’t differ that much in quality. What they differ in is fit, and that’s an entirely personal proposition. Which means if you go the helmet route, make sure you can return or exchange it for the right model.
Having gone through Roach and Race Face and Fox pads over the years, paying these worthy companies good money for products that barely rose above sucky, I finally feel like the guinea pig phase is over. The problem with pads has never been protection: Those early Roach pads really soaked up the spills even though they lacked hard shells. It’s been comfort. You couldn’t wear the bulky Cordura Roachies more than 10 minutes in summertime without feeling like your arms and legs were in plaster casts.
Six Six One seems to have finally cracked the nut. The EVO elbow pads pretty much disappear on you, which is saying something, since elbow pads hardly ever fit right and tend to move around to the point of distraction. With EVO, an “intelligent foam” technology that supposedly variably compresses according to severity of impact, Six Six One has come up with a material strong enough to absorb all but the worst hits yet soft and pliable enough to stave off chafing.
Not that the elbow pads never tend to move a bit. At least our right one does; the left one stays pretty well put. Both, however, will shimmy slightly down the forearms during long chattery descents. It’s just that you don’t notice them as you would most elbow pads, which bulk up at or slip to the wrong spot and get in the way. In any case, we’re not to the point where we’d go back to our second faves, the Troy Lee hardshells. They were just too unforgiving, even though they offered nominally better protection.
With EVO the word is it doesn’t cover a hard impact against a sharp surface like a jutting rock or cornered abutment. We thankfully have not had to do the biff test. But if your gift-getter is riding a lot in rubble (like, for instance, the desert) or doing street stunts, you might think about hardshells.
The sharp-impact concern led us to choose the Kyle Strait knee pads from Six Six One, and we have to say, we’d be surprised if EVO offered any step-up in comfort. We’ve actually ridden up places like Tiger Mountain and Galbraith (1/2 to 1 hour fire-road climbs) wearing the pads, with no chafing or discomfort.
And these things stay put. We’ve never had to pull ‘em back up or adjust them mid-descent like we have with the elbows.
Through two long seasons, the Six Six Ones have held up through repeated washings. And a lot of tumbles. So they’ve been put through that mill as well. The EVO elbows immediately turned a bit tatty after first washing, but it hasn’t affected their performance.
For more hairball stuff, the Lopes shin guards are great. They’re light, easy to haul up the hill in your bladder pack, they’re hardshell in just the right places and use velcro strapping with a neoprene knee sock so you don’t have to take off your shoes to get them on and off. This 2-stage system seems brilliant but yeah, it took more than a decade for someone to come up with it. We’ve had no shifting problems with the Lopes guards either.
Armor may not be the flashiest stuff Santa can cart down the chimney, but the next time your elf takes a flyer, he or she will be grateful for your thoughtfulness. And it’s cheap insurance, so they end up with a gift in the pocketbook as well.
[In accordance with our review policy, all merchandise discussed was purchased over the counter.]